The first woman – ever – to chair a department at University of Illinois, she knew exactly what she wanted. She didn’t let her gender get in the way of doing things her way, during a time when gender dictated everything. That chair happened to be Chemistry, a synchronicity I found charming once I’d met her.
She was a career woman before her time, never settling down, having children or getting married. Until she met my Uncle in the 1980′s.
She adopted me as her own when I first met her. Peas in a pod, my mother called us, and rightly so. Every time I saw Ruth, she brought me a new present or bauble; the sort of things a kid likes. Even without bearing her own, she understood children.
Being a lonely kid, I loved her immediately. Whenever she was around for a visit, I’d clamor to see her, probably annoying my parents and everyone around me half-to-death.
When I couldn’t see her, instead I wrote her letters. Who knows what I’d blathered on about in those letters, but I wrote them diligently. She’d lovingly send me back another letter, each time I took crayon to paper.
As I got older and more independent, I’d fly out to visit her where she’d ended up: Sun City, Arizona. It’s a retirement community nicer than my own neighborhood, where old people zip around in golf carts and Live Life.
Remembering I loved Chinese food, immediately after picking me up in her car – one of those gigantic things that make you feel like you’re riding in the cockpit of a very comfortable living room – she took me to the local Chinese place, fussing over me and making sure that I had at least three different entrees in front of me at all times.
She’d gone to the baker and bought me a bourbon pecan pie, too, and even though I’d never had one before (they look, well, SCARY), it was delicious. Now that I have my own oven and a decently good recipe, I make the same pie each year for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The china and silver she gave me when I was 16 still sits in my china cabinet, waiting for a day when my children aren’t so small; a day when I can cook a meal that isn’t made of one of three food groups: pasta, chicken bits, and something else I can’t remember. Some day, we will eat off my finery.
And when we do, I will share with my babies the stories of their Great Great Aunt Ruth, who loved their Mommy very much. Who took life by the balls and made it her bitch during a time when women were supposed to be in the home, cooking and cleaning. A woman who never stopped; never took no for an answer, and followed her dreams and her heart where it took her.
A woman with a heart a million miles wide; who loved deeply and without regrets.
A woman who we all can learn from.
This is what I will tell my children as we eat Chinese food and bourbon pecan pie off the very finest china given to me by a woman who loved beyond words.
Two days after my son turned ten, on August 22nd, 2011, my great Aunt Ruth passed away. She had a full life; more than I can ever hope for, but that doesn’t stop the aching in my heart when I think about what the world is now missing.
I’ll miss you Aunt Ruth.